Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Re-eh 5769 - Crazy land - Is this what God intended?

(originally delivered on August 15, 2009)

Some of you know that I just returned from Israel a week and a half ago, and will be going back for a few more days this coming week. I go there at least twice a year (in fact, 2009 will be a record for me- four trips), and I like to think of myself as being as connected to Israel as any American can be.

Israel is for me a nation of paradoxes. On the one hand, I feel a strong connection to it theologically, the kind of divinely-inspired attachment that simply jumps off of the pages of the humash when we read about the land in the Torah. But on the other hand, my connections to Israel are modern and secular: my family ties there, my love of the culture and the people and the modern revival of the Hebrew language, my admiration for the successes of the modern state in many fields, and my neverending appreciation for the complex, textured fabric of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious Israeli society.

I am very much attached to the notion of the Jewish state's having perhaps fulfilled the vision of Ezekiel, when the dry bones knitted themselves together; but at the same time I am disheartened by the infighting that naturally occurs when Jews gather.

I am drawn to the land itself, and yet anxious about how that land will be parceled out in the future to accommodate the nascent reality of a Palestinian state.

I lived there long enough to appreciate the high points of Israeli culture: music, dance, visual arts, academics, and yet often cringe at the crass reality of Israeli television, consumerism, and of course, politics.

I am also continuously struck by the ever-lessening tension between the tradition of historical Zionism vs. today's mild nationalism which sees making aliyah to NY as the highest sabra ideal.

I could go on. Israel is a complicated place: beautiful, moving, seductive, even. But also fraught. The internal politics are always exceedingly complex and fragile because of the coalition system and the need for any coalition to include the religious parties. Meanwhile, the precariousness of Israel's relations with her neighbors never fails to inspire supporters and critics, journalists, authors, and commentators of all stripes.

Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel when it was founded. Einstein declined, claiming that he had no time to take on such a task, although that was a weak excuse. He was not a religious man, but he was quite prescient when he stated the following in a 1938 speech entitled "Our Debt to Zionism".

He said: "My awareness of the essential nature of Judaism resists the idea of a Jewish state with borders, an army, and a measure of temporal power, no matter how modest. I am afraid of the inner damage Judaism will sustain—especially from the development of a narrow nationalism within our own ranks, against which we have already had to fight strongly, even without a Jewish state. ... If external necessity should after all compel us to assume this burden, let us bear it with tact and patience."

Tact and patience have, since 1938, been in short supply between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. Anyone who has lived there will tell you that even without the political complexities of the greater region, Israel is an impatient place. But recent events have inflamed internal tensions, or at least it seems that way from my perspective as an outsider who is sensitive to the ebb and flow of Israeli life.

1. There is a brand new outdoor mall adjacent to the Jaffa Gate of the Old City, a beautiful structure that honors the traditional architecture of Jlem and also creates a lively new space with lovely cafes with great views, in addition to all the regular Israeli chain stores.

Below the mall is a new indoor parking lot with hundreds of spaces, something which the Jlem municipality desperately needs. Until this summer, the parking lot had been closed on Shabbat, but Jlem's new mayor, Nir Barkat, a secular Jew and entrepreneur, lobbied to have it opened, due to the great need for parking. This infuriated the Haredi population of Jlem, and so there have been violent protests against it every Friday evening since the beginning of July, as Haredim of all stripes have surged into the streets of the Holy City to express their outrage of what they perceive to be a violation of the sanctity of Shabbat in the Holy City.

2. In another incident that provoked violent street protests, a Haredi woman who belongs to one of the far-right, anti-Zionist groups within the Haredi community was found to be apparently deliberately starving her 3-yr-old, who was in Hadassah hospital and at the time of the incident weighed 15 pounds. A hidden camera showed the mother repeatedly removing the feeding tube from her son's mouth. The mother was arrested and diagnosed with Munchausen-by-proxy syndrome, a curiously-named psychological condition that causes women to fabricate or induce symptoms in their children to get medical attention.

A rabbi from the woman's sect declared this incident a modern blood libel, and the Haredi street erupted in protest. Street protests turned violent, and hordes of marauding haredim destroyed the state welfare and social services office in the Meah Shearim neighborhood, storming in and smashing computers and equipment, and then setting the building on fire.

3. The Israeli media was ablaze a couple of weeks ago with another sensational story. At a parking garage in Jlem, a young, promising rabbinical student who is also the son of the Chief Sephardic rabbi of Hadera, tried to get out of the garage without paying. The attendant, a 30-year-old Ethiopian Israeli woman, stood in front of the car to prevent him from leaving, whereupon, he accelerated into her, carried her on the hood of the car for a ways, and dumped her on a sidewalk. The incident was captured by a security camera, and you can see it yourself online.

To make matters worse, the Jerusalem District judge, after speaking with the young man's father, gave him effectively a slap on the wrist, perhaps because the young man was slated to become a "dayyan," a rabbinic judge, and a criminal record would have prevented this. After extensive public outrage, the judge's ruling was overturned by a higher court, and the judge himself was censured, such that he will no longer be considered for a position on the Israeli Supreme Court.

And one more small item that hit the news in Israel - the New Jersey corruption scandal that implicated five rabbis from the insular Syrian community in America; their money laundering and kidney trafficking connected them with the Promised Land.

What's a Zionist rabbi like me to do?

Despite all of these items, the reality on the ground is not what it might seem. On my last night in Israel, I attended an annual art festival in Jerusalem that saw the best turnout in many years. A friend of mine, an Illinois native turned Jerusalemite, told me that since the security situation has improved dramatically due to the building of the separation fence, Jerusalem's streets are alive once again.

As Marcus pointed out earlier, we read in today's parashah about blessings and curses attached to our heritage of the Land of Israel. Now, of course, these are premised on whether or not we fulfill the commandments given by God. I am not going to get into a theological discussion right now about whether or not God really works this way; that discussion is for another forum. In a couple of weeks, in Parashat Ki Tavo, we will read in detail the Torah's list of these blessings and curses. However, I'd like to propose a modern take on this, given the current state of the Jewish state (with apologies to God for rewriting the Torah):

God: If you behave well, like the true inheritors of the Torah,

This land shall be a gathering place to which Jews spread all over the world shall return.

You shall eat the finest falafel the New Israeli Shekel can buy. Plus, you shall have the most fantastic selection of eating establishments in your major cities, restaurants that rival the haute cuisine found in Europe or America. Some of these restaurants will even be kosher!

You shall build fantastic infrastructure: highways that are sometimes not clogged with traffic, utilities that provide all the comforts of the most modern nations. You shall provide free wireless internet access for the benefit of Conservative rabbis who are visiting from overseas.

You shall be tremendously successful in high-tech enterprises, medical devices, international trade, and so forth. You shall assemble world-class universities, wherein students from all over the world will come to learn.

You shall build wonderful tourist infrastructure, whereby Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Baha'i will come from all over the world to see the holy sites of the ancient world, and pay handsomely to stay in the finest hotels and visit the most exciting tourist traps.

You shall thrive as a nation economically, such that Israel shall be a major force in international trade.

Most importantly, you shall have peace.

But if you are outwardly pious and yet continue to do nefarious things on the sly or even on video:

You shall be surrounded by hostile nations with whom you shall be eternally at war.

You shall elect representatives who are always caught up in one kind of of scandal or another: tax evasion, bribery, corruption, making unwanted advances on female staff, and so forth.

You shall be divided on all kinds of political issues: social, economic, foreign relations, etc. Your political system will, as a result, will be so unstable that virtually every government will fall before the end of its official term.

You shall argue with each other over religious issues; who has control over "who is a Jew," for example, and who controls issues of marriage and divorce and death. Your miraculous infrastructure will serve as flashpoints for interior disputes.

You shall absorb immigrants from all over the world, Jewish and non-Jewish (and questionably so), who will be attracted to the thriving economy, but will also contribute to a variety of social ills.

Your negotiations over issues of boundaries and security will always be problematic, and any such disputes will drain on your economy and damage your image abroad.

The Sfat Emet, also known as Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the Gerer hasidic rabbi (and grandfather of our Rabbi Isaac) who lived in Poland in the late 19th and early 20th c., asks why Moses devotes so much of the book of Deuteronomy warning the Israelites about future misdeeds. After all, the perpetrators of many of the sins that he warns about had already died in the Desert. The Sefat Emet answers that it is the task of each generation to correct the failings of preceding generations and that requires knowing those failings.

Well, my friends, the HH are just a month away, and we should be asking ourselves some difficult questions about current Jewish realities. We have much to atone for. Let's hope that 5770 is a better year for the Jewish state and the Jewish world.

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